In the feature film Transformers, which opened last week, mechatronic robots from the planet Cybertron invade Earth in search of that which endowed life on them. In the real world, mechatronic robots from the planet Earth invade Mars in search of that which endowed life on us. In both cases, mechatronics--the melding of electronics, mechanics, computers and control engineering--have spawned lifelike robots that can navigate and gather intelligence autonomously.
Once dismissed as a fad, mechatronics has fulfilled its promise of smart autonomous electromechanical systems, used both in NASA's Rover, searching for signs of life on Mars, and in the modern car. The latter has been transformed into a vehicle of "robotic manipulators"--from antilock brakes to antiskid control to collision avoidance and, eventually, driverless cars.
"You can call us autobots, for short," said Optimus Prime, the "good guy" robot in Transformers. But autobots is also a fitting moniker for the ultimate goal of automotive mechatronics: driverless cars.
"Autonomous vehicle technology is the logical upgrade path for active safety electronics, in which the sensors and algorithms predict accidents and actively avoid them within the physical and dynamic limitations of the vehicle," said Michael Williams, research vice president for Semiconductors, Automotive & Telematics Technology at Gartner Dataquest. "In terms of early driverless passenger car applications, we expect to see convenience applications, such as self-parking cars and self-valet retrieval appli- cations, emerging first."
Even though many of today's most futuristic applications were enabled by mechatronics--like the Rover--most applications are more mundane. They include washing machines that don't ask how big the load is but, instead, measure it with a sensor.
Nevertheless, the pinnacle of mechatronics design is exemplified by the manipulators of industrial robots, such as those that build cars, and in the cars themselves. Indeed, on-board mechatronic servos eventually will allow cars to drive themselves.
"Several robotics companies have tried building transformer-like modules from which you can pick and choose to create your robotic manipulators," said professor William Hamel at the University of Tennessee. Mechatronics in robotic manipulators will be addressed in Hamel's keynote address to the IEEE International Conference on Mechatronics and Automation Aug. 5 to 9 in Harbin, Heilongjiang, China. "This very elegant tool kit approach is just one step behind what a transformer is."
Where it all started
Mechatronics originated in Japan, where the technology has inspired a generation of both real science and science fiction--from a burgeoning robotics industry using mechatronic manipulators to Transformers. The movie is a fitting tribute to modern mechatronics, because of its articulated robotic manipulators and self-driving cars, which reflect today's most compelling applications.
"Mechatronics advances in robotic manipulator design and control are particularly strong, since you are dealing with an articulated mechanism with very compact features, but with fairly high payload requirements, and, on the electronics side, you have active servos on every joint," said Hamel.
The robots that build cars use these mechatronic robotic manipulators, ironically, to build mechatronic vehicles. And mechatronics in cars is following the predictable path blazed by the airline industry--from flight assistance, such as auto-altitude adjustment, to autopilots, which can take off and land without the help of a human. The goal is the same as for aircraft: the ability to tell OnStar, "I'm getting drowsy; can you take over driving?"
Williams noted, "The autonomous vehicle will deploy several sensors and many electronic subsystems that will start, drive, steer, navigate, brake and stop the vehicle. In the mainstream passenger car markets, we expect to see this technology being exploited as a safety feature, for driver assistance and driver support, rather than completely taking over the driver function yet."
Dumb to smart
The secret of transforming dumb mechanical systems into smart mechatronic systems lies in the electrical engineering of closed-loop servos to replace conventional open-loop calibration. Such smart mechatronic servos enable electronic feedback to provide control signals that proponents claim are not only more accurate, by virtue of continuous self-calibration, but also cheaper to implement than precise mechanical parts.